The tradition of performing Handel's most popular oratorio, Messiah, in the perfect setting of Duke University Chapel is well established, and these performances are as fine as can be heard anywhere. It is an annual event for some; others, including your reviewer, were there for the first time on Sunday afternoon. The performance began at 3:00 p.m. with the afternoon light, even on this cloudy day, making the stained glass windows vibrate with color. It ended after sunset, which comes early at this time of year, and the windows were dark, but the intricate woodwork, the high arching stone walls, the carvings and pillars, and the beautiful chandeliers all added light and grace to that of the elegant performance that was heard.
It had been a frantic week and weekend for many. When Rodney Wynkoop took the podium and led the orchestra of outstanding area musicians in the soft and somber tones of the Symphony that starts the epic oratorio one could feel the tensions and pressures of the seasonal rush disperse as in a gratifying exhalation.
Then tenor William Hite stepped forward and sang the perfect oratorio recitative, "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people." I felt tears well up in my eyes from the sheer beauty of the music, the meaningfulness of the words and Hite's velvety voice and obvious affection for each note and phrase. The following aria, "Every valley shall be exalted," was absolutely thrilling.
The Duke Chapel Choir picked up the excitement with a marvelous summation of these familiar Messiah opening passages from Isaiah 40, "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed." There are so many fine choruses in this work expressing human emotions from sorrow to joy to triumph, with challenging melismatic runs and other demands, and all were sung to near perfection.
And so it went, the chorus, singing with precision and tight ensemble, the soloists adding drama and haunting beauty to the Old Testament prophecies and New Testament acclamations. Baritone Jason McKinney brought a shuddering thrill with his rendition of "For behold, darkness shall cover the earth." The darkness was made palpable and fearsome with his rich and powerful voice. Even more exciting was McKinney's awesome performance in Part III of "The trumpet shall sound." His great trombone voice truly called for "the dead to be raised incorruptible."
Another memorable highlight was mezzo-soprano Margaret Bragle's aria "He was despised and rejected." In the repeated passage where she sang these words unaccompanied, her pianissimo vocal control and the meaning she put into the words was stunning
Then there was soprano Mary Wilson's "I know that my Redeemer liveth," sung with such expansive and soaring beauty that again brought tears to my eyes. What a wondrous aria this is! Add to this the elegant violin obbligato of Eric Pritchard in this and other arias and, of course, the "Hallelujah Chorus" and so much more and you have some idea of the magical charm this music continues to hold 264 years after it was first heard in New Music Hall in Dublin.
The most enthusiastic and appreciative applause at the end was for the solo bow by Wynkoop, and rightly so. His knowledge of Baroque style and phrasing, control of proper rhythmic inflection, balance of all the musical elements and just enough drama to make it real, clearly inspired all involved to expand their best and made this an experience to be greatly treasured.